The new online shooter The Division is meant to be played for months if not years. Just days after release, however, it's drawing heated criticism for how its endgame works, and the developers are already making changes.
The Division emulates the likes of Destiny and Diablo — your first time through the game is really an appetizer for the main course. Once your level is capped out, you start endgame — generally regarded as the "real" game — in which you take on far more difficult challenges while grinding for ever better, ever rarer gear.
The Division's endgame is built on a couple of really cool ideas that set it apart from its contemporaries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those fresh ideas are also where the game has stumbled. Its problems aren't quite apocalyptic yet, and the game's makers at Ubisoft Massive have already been quick to patch in some changes in response to player feedback. Some problems were fixed almost as fast as they were reported; others seem like they will linger for a while longer.
The map in this game is so good it will probably get its own article. The two biggest problems, in a nutshell: The game's fascinating cooperative/competitive "Dark Zone" has been somewhat de-fanged, so everyone's playing nice despite the fact that they could theoretically be fighting one another for loot. In addition to that, an early imbalance in how the game paid out a valuable endgame currency meant that a few extremely hardcore players were able to gorge themselves on loot and unlock almost every available reward in a matter of days.
It's probably easiest if I start by breaking down how The Division's endgame works:
- Upon hitting level 30, you're encouraged to begin to explore the "Dark Zone" in the middle of the map. The DZ is loaded with high-level enemies who drop high-level rewards, and it's also the only non-safehouse area in the game that's full of other players. (Outside of the DZ in the vanilla game's open world, it's just you and/or your squad in a world filled with NPCs.)
- While in the Dark Zone you earn special DZ experience points that increase your Dark Zone rank, as well as special DZ currency that you can spend on powerful weapons at designated vendors. You can choose to attack other players and steal their stuff, or fight alongside them to kill bosses faster and get better loot. The only way to keep the loot you've gathered is to call in an air extraction, which notifies anyone nearby that it's happening so that they can A) come get in on the extraction or B) ambush you and take your shit. The constant possibility of betrayal makes things unpredictable and exciting.
- At level 30 you also unlock daily challenge missions, which task you with replaying one of the game's main story missions against much more difficult enemies.
I hear mixed things about the Liberator. I think I'll probably buy it anyway...
- In addition to Dark Zone currency you begin to earn a new currency called "Phoenix Credits," which let you buy the best gear in the game from certain vendors. You get some credits for completing daily challenge missions, and some for killing bosses in the dark zone. Think of Destiny's strange coins, if you're looking for a point of comparison.
- You start working toward earning High-End Gear, which is the technical term for the the best class gear in the game. High-end guns are colour-coded gold and the guns have names and unique perks (sound familiar?) though each piece of high-end loot also has some element of randomness to its roll. You could get two versions of the same high-end gun and have one be way better than the other, meaning that the quest for your perfect loadout could be lengthy.
More stuff is coming in the future — in particular the first of several planned "incursions," which have been described as The Division's version of an MMO raid — but until then, that's pretty much it. Earn phoenix credits, explore the dark zone, do challenge missions, and unlock high-end gear.
If you visit most of The Division's dedicated forums and in particular the well-populated Division subreddit, you'll see a lot of players howling bloody murder about the various ways the game is screwing all of that stuff up. Here's what's going wrong.
Everybody's Friends In The Dark Zone
The (cool) idea underlying the Dark Zone is that you'll form tenuous alliances, farm good gear, and sometimes lose that gear to other players. If you kill another player in the DZ, you become designated a "rogue agent," which lights your name up in red and alerts everyone around you that there's now a bounty on your head.
You can kill a rogue player with no penalty, and you get a whole bunch of DZ experience points and cash. You can even pick up whatever loot they were carrying, free of charge. If you go rogue and get killed, however, you suffer a significant penalty; you lose a big chunk of DZ experience points and money, as well as whatever you were carrying.
The current issue is that the punishment for going rogue is so severe that everyone has already decided not to do it. Going rogue is almost always a death sentence, and the rewards just aren't worth the risk. As a result, most players will work really hard to avoid going rogue. Once you know that, it removes a lot of the tension from the Dark Zone.
I played in the DZ a bunch this weekend, and found that other players almost never went rogue. Several times I ran into yahoos who saw that I was carrying loot and repeatedly tried to jump into my line of fire to trick me into going rogue, so they could kill me and take my stuff without going rogue themselves.
Seriously, look at this jackass:
In general, though, everyone plays it cool. Late last night I saw a couple of well-attended extractions where every player simply unloaded their stuff and bailed, without a shot fired.
I didn't have any gear to extract so I just did jumping jacks. I also saw a couple of players accidentally go rogue while shooting at NPCs; the other players let them live until their rogue timer expired. There was a sort of unspoken agreement that we were all just farming loot and no one wanted to be a jerk about it. It was actually fascinating and tense, if ultimately anticlimactic.
I understand the complaints that the Dark Zone's rogue punishments are so severe that they discourage anyone from going rogue. The Dark Zone's gotta have some fangs if it's going to remain interesting, and I can imagine the novelty quickly wearing off if everyone keeps agreeing to get along. While there's still the possibility of seeing the odd extraction ambush, I haven't seen anyone decide to aggressively go on a rogue killing spree out in the DZ itself. To do so would be suicidal and would almost certainly undo hours of work grinding cash and XP.
That being said, I've still been having a great time in the Dark Zone. It still feels exciting and unpredictable to me, and has proven a fine way to grind for better gear after completing most of what there is to do in the base game. It's been fun to just randomly run into other players and decide to team up to grab loot, and the careful dance of trust that we do immediately after meeting hasn't gotten old.
I sense that the bigger long-term issue will be the fact that aside from the DZ, The Division has no other sort of PvP (player vs. player) game option. There's no team deathmatch, no capture the flag, no arena-style fighting like in most other online shooters. For players who really like PvP and want to test their mettle against other players, there's kinda nothing to do. You could run into the DZ and immediately begin shooting other players, but you'll just get mobbed by every other player in the Zone and die.
I imagine that Ubi Massive will tweak the risk/reward ratio for going rogue in the near future, but even then, it'd be great to also have something like a designated non-rogue area where people can engage in structured PvP play with their cool new guns without worrying about going rogue, losing progress, or the rest of the Dark Zone meta.
A Run On The Phoenix Credit Bank
The other major endgame problem involves those cool new guns and the phoenix credits needed to buy them. Remember, your whole goal for The Division's endgame is to get high-end guns and armour, and the easiest way to get that gear is by earning phoenix credits and spending them at high-end vendors.
You can earn credits by doing daily missions or by killing difficult "named" bosses in the Dark Zone. You get somewhere between 15-30 credits for doing daily missions at "hard" and "challenging" difficulties. A named boss in the DZ will currently net you a mere two or three credits. A high end weapon blueprint might cost 180 coins, so you'll have to save up for each thing you want to buy.
You get this high-end pistol for finishing the story. It seems ok? A little gaudy for my taste. It's a pretty balanced system… well, it's a pretty balanced system now.
For the first few days after The Division went online, it was possible to get 10 or more coins from a single named boss in the Dark Zone. That threw the entire balance out of whack. Players who mainlined the game for the first 48 hours were able to hit the level cap and assemble teams to farm DZ bosses and amass hundreds, even thousands of phoenix credits. Some players earned so many credits that they could afford basically every piece of high-end gear in the game.
Ubi Massive quickly nerfed the drop rate for phoenix credits in the DZ; you now get only a couple of credits for each named boss. It was probably their only viable option, but the damage has been done. A handful of hardcore players already have unbelievably powerful characters, and the rest of us have to slowly grind to unlock the gear those people got in a day or two.
The theoretical problem here is substantial: A few dedicated players are fully geared up with nothing to do. It's easy to imagine bands of near-invincible jackholes roving the Dark Zone and killing everyone with impunity. Given that they have nothing left to buy, they're probably bored, and their gear is so good that even coordinated groups of "normals" would have a hard time killing them.
In practice, for me… well, it hasn't really been like that. I haven't run into any bands of geared up super-killers in the DZ. And while part of me feels a little bitter than some players already have the best stuff, I've been hitting the endgame pretty hard and so far have felt fine with my rewards. I'm excited when I get a new piece of high-end gear and have been carefully planning my phoenix credit purchases to get stuff I really want.
The 15-credit daily hard missions are a piece of cake, and I'm sure that in a month of regular, casual play I'll have whatever gear I want. If I'd gorged on phoenix credits in the first couple of days like those zealous few, I would have ruined the whole flow. If anything, those are the people most hurt most by the overly generous pre-nerf Dark Zone rewards.
There are some other issues that I'm not outlining here — some of the drop rates in the DZ are a bit off, DZ credits feel largely pointless, the challenge on daily missions is weird, that kind of thing — but most of The Division's endgame problems stem from the two issues outlined above.
Ubisoft Massive has demonstrated that they're carefully listening to players. They have already issued a couple of hotfixes, one for the DZ credit rewards and another one nerfing a ridiculously overpowered gun within a day or two of it being identified by players.
There are a number of possible solutions to the problems I've outlined above, and while some of them would be more substantial and difficult to implement than others, this game isn't even a week old. The Division's endgame may be a work in progress, but I'm willing to give the developers the benefit of the doubt that they will continue to figure this stuff out as they go.
I've put around 40 hours into The Division so far and while I do feel I have a pretty good sense of what it's all about, I'm still adjusting to the rhythms of endgame. Along with Destiny, The Division is really only the second shared-world shooter of its kind. If there's one thing Bungie's game has taught me, it's that these games' most appealing aspects — and most frustrating problems — only make themselves known over time. My full review will most likely run early next week. Until then, I've got some Dark Zone bosses to farm.